Woodland caribou : going, going … gone?
Updated November 21, 2011
Jasper’s southern caribou herd appears to have stabilized somewhat. The count of approximately 71 animals is the same as that recorded in 2010. Fifty-four are in the Tonquin Valley area and eleven in the Brazeau area. In the Maligne area, from a count of about forty animals ten years ago, their numbers have now been reduced to perhaps no more than six.The number of new calves this year was very high – at a ratio of 52:100 cows – and predation was not a noticeable factor.
There is cautious optimism but the main goal must be ‘recovery’, not just the status quo. It will take commitment by Parks Canada to strengthen the initial hesitant steps it has taken over the past few years – keeping ski trails out of important habitat and banning dogs in those same areas year-round. They are small steps but they just may be doing some good and if there is a renewed increase in wolf numbers and changes in climate they will need all the help they can get.
After a delay of more than five years a recovery plan for the Southern Mountain Caribou is finally underway. This is the responsibility of the federal Minister of Environment and will include the listing of critical habitat for this threatened species.
The plan will have to be a lot better than the draft one released by the Minister three months ago for the Boreal caribou population: of which Ecojustice Canada said: ‘This is not a recovery plan. This is barely a survival plan.’
Will the Minister finally recognize the national parks’ mandate to give top priority to the protection of nature and the importance of the Species at Risk Act stipulation that ‘protected areas are critical for the survival and recovery of species at risk’ or will he be swayed by business and recreational interests who don’t want restrictions on activities and development in ‘critical’ caribou habitat?
The litmus test for the success of Jasper’s recovery plan may be Parks Canada’s decision-making regarding any proposed expansion by Marmot Basin Ski area out of its present developed footprint and onto the adjoining slopes of Whistlers Creek Valley – slopes that provide some of the best caribou habitat in the park and are part of the range of the hard-pressed Tonquin herd.
The Southern Mountain Woodland Caribou (Rangifer tarandus caribou) is listed as a ‘threatened’ species under the Species at Risk Act (SARA). It is found in southern Alberta and British Columbia but the population in Jasper National Park is the only one in the two provinces to remain on protected lands year-round.
Although the numbers have been declining for the past 50 years it has taken the SARA listing to elicit any action from Parks Canada. The population has dropped from a rough estimate of 500 animals in the 1960s to a present count of less than 100.
Consensus is lacking on what has caused the decline but predation and climate change are strong possibilities. Wolves have always preyed on caribou if they can get to them but caribou have the ability to survive in deep snow conditions at higher elevations where wolves are unwilling to follow. The situation changes when human use of caribou habitat facilitates access: snowmobile and cross-country ski tracks through deep snow are an open invitation to packs and individuals. In summer other prey species gain elevation in their search for greening vegetation and their presence in caribou habitat attracts wolves.
The Greater Jasper Ecosystem Caribou Research Project (Brown/Kansas 1992), looking for reasons for the decline in numbers, stated: ‘Perhaps the most important, but indirect, human activity was the provision of packed road access to caribou winter range.’ The study singled out the Maligne road that allowed wolves to regularly travel into caribou wintering habitat and that without the road they would have had to travel more than 50 km through deep snow to reach their prey. Parks Canada ignored any suggestion of closing the road.
Jasper’s recovery plan
Instead of relying on the advice of its own biologists and other experts Parks Canada invited local ‘stakeholders’ to recommend management of this national park threatened species. The resulting ‘recovery plan’ was described in a Sierra Club report by Dr. James Schaefer of Trent University as being ‘timid’. Other biologists found it ignored recommendations from previous studies and said user interests were being given a higher priority than caribou recovery.
As the Sierra Club rightly pointed out: ‘If the federal government does not have the political will to implement aggressive recovery measures to restore caribou populations within its own jurisdiction, it sets a grim precedent for federal involvement in caribou recovery across the rest of Canada’
Parks Canada has now taken some steps to lessen the human imprint in caribou habitat: it ended the machine-tracking of ski runs and banned dogs in important caribou habitat. The winter of 2009-10 saw the closure of the Cavell road to all cross-country skiing and snowmobile–supply trips to the two lodges in the Tonquin Valley until the snow was crusted enough for the wolves to travel anyway.
However it still refuses to stop plowing the Maligne Road and there is also the question of the Marmot Basin downhill ski area long-range plan. Parks recently gave approval for consideration of expanding ski lifts into an adjacent wilderness area. Expansion would be conditional on a ‘caribou risk assessment’ but Parks has said that whatever the outcome of that assessment, off-piste skiing will still be permitted in this important caribou habitat. One has to wonder just how committed Parks Canada and the Department of Environment are to saving the woodland caribou.
The future of Jasper’s caribou?
Parks Canada is now preparing a draft obligatory Conservation Strategy for the caribou on Parks lands to be incorporated into the SARA National Recovery Strategy and subsequent Action Plan led by Environment Canada. Hopefully biologists’ advice will be given higher credence than that of local ‘stakeholders’. The Department of Environment and Parks Canada should be leading the way in protecting both the caribou and their habitat instead of deferring to business interests and dithering over the recovery of this threatened Canadian icon.